“Access to justice is a basic right.” Chief Justice of Canada speaks on how “our justice system has failed our middle class”

Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, spoke to a group of about 200 law students, city counsil members and visiting judges, including members of the Supreme Court of British Columbia on Feb. 27 in the Irving K. Barber Centre. PHOTO BY MIKE DAVIES

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief  Ω

In front of approximately 200 students (admittedly mostly from the faculty of law), Kamloops city councillors and members of the B.C. law community, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada, gave a talk entitled, “Legal Education and the Challenges of Access to Justice,” in Thompson Rivers University’s Irving K. Barber Centre on Feb 27.

For about a half-hour, she discussed the aspects of the Canadian legal system that work and those that don’t, all with a breath of sincere honesty that some would think unusual from someone in her position.

She didn’t make it about politics or policy (though she did touch on a few of those ideas). She made it about people.

She talked not about law, but about justice.

She talked about justice in terms of it being a right rather than a luxury that can be enjoyed by those with deep enough pockets to afford it.

And she talked honestly about how it isn’t there yet.

“You have all experienced yourselves or know someone who has experienced a problem with access to justice,” she said.

“Perhaps it was a landlord who wouldn’t make the necessary repairs to an apartment. Perhaps it was a speeding ticket that you were sure was undeserved. Or maybe it was an application for a student loan that was denied….

“You, or the person you know who experienced these things, were experiencing a problem of access to justice.”

She talked about how there are “potholes” in your way along the road to justice — things that slow you down on your way to receiving justice — and how sometimes there are walls that stop you that seem to have been placed there instead.

“In England, in the civil courts,” she said, “the view has been taken that justice is a pay your own way approach…which means that only the corporations or the very wealthy are using the courts.

“Is that justice?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s one vision of justice.”

She said that in Canada, she’d like to think that we take the view of justice being a basic right instead of a privilege.

“A right like food, or shelter or adequate medical care, which a civilized society should provide to all of its members,” she charged onward, clearly passionate about the issue.

She continued to explain how an accessible justice system is the hallmark of a stable society, and of a society that promotes and fosters social equality — a society that we claim to enjoy here in Canada.

By international standards our judiciary system is held among the highest in the world, and for good reason, she claimed — but she had some scathing words for it as well.

“Our justice system has, I believe, failed many middle class families.

“It has failed the thousands of people who can’t afford to sue the perpetrator of a personal injury complaint or a contractor who has failed to meet a routine obligation in a home renovation.

“It has failed thousands of Canadians who don’t have a legal will, simply because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer to draft one or are so afraid that what it will cost will bankrupt them,” she said.

A 2010 study in Ontario indicated one in seven Ontarians experiencing a civil legal problem recognized the need for assistance but did not seek any, and the overwhelming reason cited was cost of legal counsel.

And for good reason, according to McLachlin.

The Toronto Star reported a few years ago that the average cost of a three-day civil trial at the time of the report exceeded $60,000 — an amount that exceeded the average Canadian family’s annual income by $2,000.

Just to get a lawyer to do a few hours research on a noisy neighbour and perhaps write a couple of letters might cost $5,000.

And the worry is that people aren’t even sure that after they pay these seemingly exorbitant costs, that they will, in fact, receive justice.

She spoke of the problem of self-represented litigants that arises due to these fears, and how that problem leads to further problems in the judiciary systems.

She concluded her passionate monologue by talking about the ways that law schools help the promote access to justice here in Canada — by making lawyers, creating hubs of legal awareness within the communities in which they are situated and by fostering legal innovation and reform.

“We can’t have proper access to justice without lawyers, and it’s been well documented that we have shortages [in practicing lawyers], particularly in rural areas and smaller cities,” she said, citing that each year Canadian law schools churn out approximately 2,000 graduates, but because only about 20 per cent of lawyers practice outside major metropolitan centres, there is a huge shortage outside those regions.

The creation of law schools outside those areas — like the new one here at Thompson Rivers University — are expected to help that situation by keeping more graduating lawyers in these smaller communities.

“Law schools don’t necessarily make cases proceed through the courts faster, or make lawyers more affordable, but a community centred on the law is one that will make its justice system and access to that justice system a priority,” she said.

It’s pretty clear that access to justice is a priority that we can all get behind — at least it likely is for everyone who attended the Chief Justice’s fervent talk at Canada’s newest law school this winter.

2 Comments

  1. Anne Beaton Mar. 11, 2012
    • Chris Budgell Mar. 26, 2012